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Gravitas

Gravitas

I was recently in New York City and attended a predominately African-American Church in Harlem. The church is mostly made up of people who are in some form of recovery, people who have seen some very hard times. And when they say that they need Jesus, they say it like it is still true.

At the service I attended, the choir sang gospel music, and they were worth the trip without all the other wonders of NYC, of which there are many. This choir had some standout performers. They started with the good-looking young man who had a fine voice. He was smooth and had a great range and knew how to hold his notes to gain greater meaning from them. There was the woman who took the microphone and established herself as a gospel diva, which requires vocal authority with a dash of humility. But the humility is all appearance because she can just plain sing. Then there was the tall, powerfully built man who was the mighty bass. You listened carefully to him because he made you think of the lightning and thunder that must have started when the Lord realized that the children of Israel were already making a golden calf, even though Moses had only been gone about twenty minutes. One by one they all came forward and sang songs of praise while we clapped and smiled.

Then this old guy steps up and takes the microphone. Rather than sing, he hesitates, like he is getting his musical bearings. They play a note for him. Still, he pauses. Some people call out, “Sing it Simon! Sing it!” Now he smiles. I can’t tell if he needs the encouragement or if he is demanding payment before the song begins. “Sing it now, Simon! Sing it!” they yell. He begins to sing a song about the way Jesus’ love has lifted him up. You can tell that Simon is working a lot harder these days to hit the high notes. He still has it, but he once had finer musical days. He was once good-looking and smooth. But I am looking at the people in this church, and I can see that of all the music that has been shared, Simon’s is the most meaningful to them. They call, “Amen” as he sings. They smile and sing along. They close their eyes and soak it in. When he finishes, there is tremendous applause as the old man takes his place back in the choir. I realize that Simon has a story. Simon does not sing gospel, he embodies the gospel. Maybe in how far Jesus has brought him. Maybe in how good a man he has become by living out the Christian life. Simon has gravitas: dignity, seriousness or solemnity of manner.

I once asked a friend of mine if his pastor was a good preacher. I’ll never forget his comment. He said, “He’s really not a very good preacher. But he is such a good Christian person that I listen to every word he says.”

The Bible tells us that we should do whatever we do “as unto The Lord,” which means that you have to offer your best and not make laziness a reason for being poor. But there is this other dimension people also attain that is even better when you add it: good Christian person trumps good singer, good preacher, good whatever—every time.

About Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the lead pastor of Floris UMC. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of his own book and several small group studies. Tom and his wife, Karen, have four daughters.

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